It is not often that life hands us something on a silver platter. So when I got an opportunity to row the historic Azorean whaleboats in Faial and Pico this summer, I jumped at the chance. This was the fourth regatta of its kind and the first in which women were rowing. Nine women representing the Azorean Maritime Historical Society embarked on this historic venture. Some of us were seasoned rowers who also belong to the Buzzards Bay Rowing Club and some of us were solely AMHS rowers. Regardless, of our expertise, we shared a common goal of preserving the part of our whaling past that continues to link New Bedford with the Azores.

Comprising the women’s team was Nancy Anderson, Deb Gabriel, Dyan Kieltka, Mary Jane Mcmanus, Louise Medeiros, Rosemary Rebello, Barbara Traban, Lydia Viveiros and yours truly Gloria Gundersen . With as much practice as we could cram in a month and a half, team USA left for the “old country”. For some crew members it was a new experience with a culture they only had a fleeting glimpse of at the annual Madeira Feast or at one of the many fine Portuguese eateries in the area. For others, it was old hat and a homecoming as comfortable and familiar as an old pair of shoes.

As for me, it was a bit of both. You see, my great grand parents immigrated to New Bedford in 1906. With eight children in tow, they packed up their lives in one steamer trunk and never looked back. Everyone worked hard and eventually bought their dream home—a three decker in the south end of New Bedford. Ever taking a sow’s ear and making a silk purse, soap and water and a fresh coat of paint soon brought a dull property to life. Add a grape arbor and some hydrangeas or “snow balls” as we affectionately called them and it became home.

I grew up there never knowing what it was to have a babysitter. My titias (aunts) and madrinha (godmother) were on call for the rare occasions my parents went out without me. And if the bill of fare at my house didn’t suit my palate, I’d go upstairs to madrinha’s where the food always seemed better and Hershey Kisses were always in abundance for dessert. It was there my vavoa (grandmother) taught me the little bit of Portuguese I remember to this day. It was there I felt warm, secure, and special and loved. Therefore, it was not only with hope, but confidence I left home for Bridgewater State College. Like my great grandparents before me, I too never looked back. I was living the American dream that they had sacrificed so much for. I got so busy with a career in teaching, then marriage, then children, then the family business and then grandchildren that my history got buried and almost forgotten.

The resurrection came in the guise of a rowing race and the chance to reconnect with the kinds of people and places of my past. The Azoreans were welcoming hosts, warm and eager to show us their respective islands and hospitality. It became easy to adapt to “island time” –late dinners and dancing that began at 11:30pm. In this setting, long forgotten Portuguese phrases spewed forth from my lips. Surprisingly, people understood me and encouraged me by taking the time to engage me in conversation. Oh wouldn’t vavoa be proud of me now!

The day of the race finally came. Team USA (average age 55) was butting heads with adversaries Pico and Faial (average age 25). They were oh so young and oh so buff. What were we thinking? The water was a bit rough that day as we struggled with a leaky boat. “Bail” commanded our coxswain Barbara. “Bail” shouted the committee boat. We were bailing to no avail—we were taking on water. “Plug” yelled the Faial girls. “Sabotage” thought the team from the US. After much ado, a plug-which amounted to a cork, was provided to bung up a drainage hole. The race was finally to begin. After much jockeying about for position, with Pico and Faial testing the limits of the starting line, we were off. The race was close. Using pure brute force, Pico got a clear lead. Faial and USA were close and made for an exciting finish. In the end, youth won over form and experience. There was much cheering for Team USA to the bewilderment of Pico and Faial. After all we finished third. The young ladies of Pico and Faial will need to experience life a bit more in order to understand why we were celebrating that day. Each of us had our own personal reasons and stories. This has been mine: a story more about the race than the winning of it, a story more about the destination than the journey. A story of rediscovery in a land I had only heard and read about until now. Clearly, I know who really won the day.

Gloria Gundersen.